Note: I am a practicing Buddhist. I am therefore neither theist, nor non-theist. The comments I offer below should be understood in this context.
My essential contention is that systems of ethics and morals can and do exist separate from God. Further, if God does not exist I maintain that both ethics and morals do exist even in the absence of God. I often hear theists argue that ethics and morals are of no consequence if God does exist; that moral codes become meaningless and arbitrary human customs if God does not exist. Generally, this type of statement is made within the context of some type of discussion regarding belief and non-belief. I object to this type of thinking for two reasons. First, it ignores the moral accomplishments, and lives of our atheist and agnostic friends. If not explicitly, this type of statement implicitly devalues the ethics and values of non-believers; an action which itself is troubling on philosophical grounds. Second, I object on the basis that for a believer, such a position devalues God’s creation by either ignoring or dismissing the value present within the creation itself.
Consider for a moment the creation of an engineer, a painter, or a sculpture. Clearly the end result of creative work – the creation – is imbued with meaning from its creator. The creator embarked on their creative project with an end goal in mind. Certainly they produced their work in order to provide some function, communicate meaning, or perhaps simply to represent beauty. Their creations do represent the creative purpose – the end goal of the creator. However, these creations also have value and meaning in themselves which is separate from the creative impetus and even the creator.
For example, let us consider a painter who creates beautiful oil paintings of scenes in Central Park. He does so, in large part, due to the positive memories he has of the walks his mother took him on when he was a child. These positive memories act as his creative impetus. Now, is an observer, who is completely unaware of the artist or his creative impetus, incapable of appreciating the beauty of the art? Certainly not.
Indeed, in some cases knowledge of or assumptions about the creator may detract from the perception of the creation itself. For example, the operas of Wagner are some of the most beautiful, inspiring, and technically impressive works of art produced in the 19th century. Yet, there are some who are unable to appreciate the beauty and value of the art because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism ( a disputed fact but a prevalent notion nonetheless ) and the appropriation of Wagner by Nazism for purposes of propaganda. Similarly, some attempt to downplay the significance of Machiavelli’s contributions to political science by pointing out the self-serving nature of his observations and writing. Yet, the work of Wagner and Machivelli do have value both aesthetic and technical. Value, which is distinct and separate from themselves and their creative impetus.
The same is true of human beings, members of the animal kingdom, the natural world, and cosmos. Regardless of their origin, these all have intrinsic value.
When we consider systems of ethics and morals it is plain to see that such systems are developed and exist to prescribe attitudes, and actions relative to those things that we recognize have value. Murder is wrong because we see the intrinsic value of human life. The humane treatment of animals is required because we observe that animals have value. We respect and attempt to preserve the natural world because it too has value, which is apparent to us; be it beauty or the sheer awe it inspires.
Thus, moral codes that govern behavior in relation to human beings and the natural world are developed independently of the existence of God or recognition of God’s creative design. Now, certainly a believer sees value in the natural world and various theistic notions inform his/her value judgments. However, a non-believer also makes value judgments about the natural world and those value judgments are informed by either the intrinsic value of the object alone, or the intrinsic value in addition to materialistic or other notions. The astronomy Carl Sagan is an excellent example of a person who recognized the intrinsic value of the entire cosmos as he stood in awe of its beauty, complexity, and sheer size.
Believers and non-believers may squabble over how the existence of life and a beautiful and awesome cosmos either support or do not support the existence of God. However, these disagreements have nothing whatsoever to do with the intrinsic value that exists in the cosmos.
Of course, atheists and agnostics may be tempted to seek answers or explanations for intrinsic value by employing science or the scientific method alone. This, as Huston Smith has observed, borders on scientism, and not science. However, reasonable atheists, agnostics, and others highly committed to the scientific method freely recognize that there are abstract and subjective concepts such as beauty and love which neither science, nor the scientific method attempt to define.
Again, ethical systems develop in order to protect and preserve those things, which we recognize have value. Each of us certainly value these things differently and our value judgments are the result of our religious, cultural, scientific, and family backgrounds. However, the fact remains that both believers and non-believers alike recognize value in the cosmos and adopt ethical and moral systems in order to recognize, protect, and preserve, as much as possible, that value.